Recent Computational Tinkering Experiments

Earlier this month, Nicole and I traveled to the MIT Media Lab for the 2016 Scratch conference. At the event, we led a workshop on scratchpaper and shared some of our recent experiments around computational tinkering. After the conference we stuck around the lab for a couple days to share ideas with members of the Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) group, continue to work through prototypes, and plan next steps around tinkering in the digital world.


We're interested in the possibilities of developing a programmable light play activity. Earlier in the year, some of the LLK team visited us at the Exploratorium to share initial prototypes for rainbow colored lights, adjustable motors and a special version of scratchx that can control the components. The group at MIT has continued to test out versions of the hardware and now we are ready to start experimenting with the parts and thinking about the experience. tidaylightplay2

We ran an impromptu workshop with a few members of the Scratch team to share initial ideas around lightplay. One thing that we noticed was that it felt nice to use the big white walls for the programmable displays instead of containing the light and shadow elements inside small boxes. As we continue to think about combining the physical and digital, it will be important to pay attention to the scale of each aspect.


The next day we continued our explorations by trying out scratchpaper one more time with the scratch team. With this group, the wide walls of the activity shone through. Since this group had more scratch experience, they created some really complex projects like a reaction time game, a fortune telling machines, and a skydiving simulator. IMG_6927

One project that I thought was really interesting had a blue monster both in the real world, with the little vibrating pager motor paper, as well as animated on the screen. It felt really natural for participants to switch between both modes, but we wished that the grey arduino blocks on the scratchx screen could feel as friendly and playful as the colorful paper circuit examples.


Eric Rosenbaum joined us and combined the scratch arduino extension with another experimental version that he's been working on the adds a synthesizer to the sound library. He combined the specialized sounds with a light sensor to created a space-age theremin-like instrument with a really cool effect. It would be fun to think more about adding sound and music to the mix of examples and starting points with this activity. IMG_6978

Cassia, a educator from Sao Paulo who has been spending the summer in residency with the lab, also shared some of her recent experiments with using a different type of arduino connection to make pinball machines in her after-school program. Her team's work to lower the threshold for programming physical elements has inspired us for a long time and we are looking forward to exploring adding scratch elements to homemade pinball machines, maybe in one of the tinkering after-school programs.

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Our experiments have continued back at home with both light play and scratchpaper and we started involving more members of the team to help prototype new ideas. Since light play will be the first in depth computational tinkering exploration, we started by setting up a screen in the LS and gathering some familar elements. IMG_7046

I was inspired by Mitchel's keynote at the Scratch conference where, in a tribute to the ideas of Seymour Papert, he explained the importance of learners embodying the programmed element, from the turtle to the sprite. This idea got me thinking about servo motors and the control that they offer to the light play system. I re-purposed the inner workings of Nicole's Scratch xylophone from East Bay Maker Faire to make a little programmable "light turtle" that could be controlled through scratchx.


We were able to write a quick program for the light to follow the movement of the mouse or a sprite on the stage. While I'm not sure how easy it is to get started programming servo motors, I liked how the light turtle instantly had a poersonality depending on the movements. It's a little bit of a side track to the programmable rainbow lights and motors, but I think we could be thinking of multiple entry points to the activity. IMG_7165

Getting back to the world of scratchpaper, I built a wooden arduino mega board with copper nail connections for all of the digital and analog pins. This massive circuit board isn't the right scale for beginners but I thought it might come in handy as we continue prototyping more complex scratchpaper ideas.


And finallly, last weekend, Jie Qi, an artist from MIT who got us started thinking about paper circuits many years ago, stopped by our workshops to share some of her latest experiments with me and Sebastian. She is working on a really cool circuit board that can connect to a paper circuit with a binder clip and can be programmed using a cellphone. We'll be really excited to test out these ideas when we can get our hands on a more finished version. IMG_7229

Jie also helped me go a bit further in my experiments with attiny and arduino programming. One big shift from Scratch to the arduino IDE is that creating parallel programs can be a challenge. We used the timer function to create different patterns and trying to use the sensors from scratchpaper to make some simple projects. I like how the pysical elements of scratchpaper can be a stepping stone to programming arduinos or attinys, but we'll need to do more experimentation to scaffold the experience.

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Jie inspired me to get going on another project we've been talking about for a while, a computational version of Nicole's tinkering verbs tile wall. I'm excited about creating something in the workshop space to give people the sense of possibilities from programming. IMG_7314

Sebastian suggested a different way of constructing the prototype so that the the process and materials that go into building it can be made visible through exposed alligator clips and copper tape. So far I only have made tile with verbs related to LEDs but some other programming suggestions by the tinkering twitterati include spin, shake, invert (servos) listen, see, press (sensors) and more general things like loop, repeat, wait, random, and reset!

We're excited to continue experiments with tinkering with programming and ways to combine physical and digital world. We'll keep sharing our ideas and prototypes as we experiment ourselves with these topics.


Scratch@MIT 2016

Last week, Nicole and I traveled to MIT for the biannual scratch conference and spent a few extra days sharing ideas and prototyping with our friends at the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Lab. During the conference we ran a scratchpaper workshop, highlighting a new idea we've been developing to help learners get started with scratchx by programming paper circuit cards.


The workshop took place in the LLK room at the Media Lab, an inspiring place where we felt right at home. The twenty-four participants worked in pairs to explore the lights, switches, sensors, and vibrating motor monsters. We were a little nervous since this type of workshop required people using their own computers, downloading the right software and getting the example sketches transferred. Things went pretty smoothly, but as we move more into explorations of computational tinkering, these workshop logistics give us something to think about. IMG_6588

Near the entrance of the room we created a 'corner of curiousity' to show off some possible extensions to the activity. We included examples of paper circuits that use the attiny chip, some more artistic paper circuit examples and nicole's analog copper crown that uses light sensors and RGB LEDs in an interesting physical arrangement.


Nicole also made an example modeled after the work of Tinkering Studio AIR Shih Chieh Huang that incorporated the scratch stage into the project. As the black circle moved on the screen the RGB light changed color. P1110385.jpg

Although most of the participants had used scratch before, it was a first chance for many to explore the arduino extension on scratchx. We felt it was important to start with just a single light and a example sketch showing how to hook things up before moving to more complicated projects.


We wanted to support a collaborative and playful attitude for the activity since we were experimenting technical and possibly intimidating parts like sensors, resistors, and circuit baords. We felt that the social scaffolding of people working together and the mix of familiar and unfamiliar materials went a long way towards helping us create an inviting environment.

Scratchpaper Frog Crossing from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo. Participants made all types of projects using the physical objects, showing off the wide walls of the activity. Some of the groups incorporated music, others turned into simple games, and some participants spent the time investigating all of the different components. One interesting project was a "street crossing frog" that moved when the light turned green and yellow but stopped when the light turned red. IMG_6628

We spent about forty-five minutes exploring the scratchpaper construction kit, shared our projects and then reflected on the aspects of facilitation, materials, and environment that supported the playful and collaborative approach to learning. It was great to try this fairly new activity with a thoughtful and fun group of collaborators and we got a lot of ideas about how to keep developing the workshop. As well, we're looking forward to see how other educators remix the idea and make it work for their own setting.


The entire conference was really inspiring as well. It started off with Mitchel Resnick, the leader of the LLK group, giving a emotional tribute to his friend and mentor Seymour Papert, who developed the idea of constructionism and whose teachings and writings greatly influenced the tinkering/making movement. I would recommend watching Mitchel's summary of Papert's ideas as well as the other thought-provoking keynotes that were thankfully recorded and posted on the Scratch conference website. IMG_6724 2

During the three days of the conference, Nicole and I participated in workshops, roamed the poster sessions and listened to panel discussions. Some of the things that we're excited to try and learn more about include using the new microworlds feature of scratch to create more manageable starting points, the next iteration of beetleblocks, experimenting with WeDo to create playful motions and mechanisms, and using turtle stitch to export scratch designs to an embroiderly machines. And we even had time to take a tinkering t-shirt challenge photo with the famous LEGO scratch cat! We'll continue to share our thoughts and experiments around scratchpaper as well as these other expressions of computational tinkering using scratch.


The Art of Tinkering Workshop – November 2016

The Art of Tinkering
– A three day workshop about tinkering, making, thinking, and learning –
November 16-18, 2016 @ the Exploratorium

The Tinkering Studio team is excited to announce a hands-on workshop at the Exploratorium! The workshop is designed to investigate together how tinkering and making experiences support fundamental STEM thinking and learning, and is aimed at educators from all backgrounds, settings, and experience levels. During three days together we will explore tinkering and making activities that we feel have the potential to blend science and art explorations, exemplify best practices for critical thinking, and incorporate creative ways of becoming active participants in the process of tinkering and making.

The workshop is articulated around core tinkering activities designed to build upon each other over the course of three days. We will alternate between delving into making and tinkering with a learner’s mindset, and then carefully reflecting and deconstructing those experiences through an educational lens. At the end of our work together you will be equipped to formulate a practical action plan to take the logical next step to implement tinkering in your practice, whether you are just starting out, or are interested in expanding an existing plan. You will also meet other educators from all kinds of backgrounds interested in the same work, and will make lasting connections to support each other!

“How do I apply?”
Send a letter of interest to tinkering@exploratorium.edu! We ask that you commit to the full three days of the workshop, and we strongly encourage you to come with a colleague or thinking partner. There is a fee for this workshop, which will cover:

  • All supplies, tools, and consumables materials used during the workshop
  • Electronic activity guides and a copy of The Art of Tinkering book
  • Continental breakfast, snacks, and full lunch each day of the workshop

“Having an understanding and confidence to move back and forth between directing and allowing space is foundational to making tinkering really work for learning.” — workshop participant

The Art of Tinkering workshop will be led by Tinkering Studio educators who have worked with over 100,000 learners of all ages, in settings as diverse kindergarten classrooms, graduate school courses, community centers, public schools, Tibetan monasteries, science museums, and cultural festivals around the world.

The fine print: Workshop participation is limited, and applications will be processed on a first come, first serve basis. The workshop fee does not cover costs associated with travel, hotel, or meals and incidental personal expenses.


Scratchpaper Inspirations

People often ask how we design new activities. It's often tough to give a straightforward answer, because for us the development process takes place on a long time scale, involves iterating on prototypes and revisiting old ideas. We collaborate with outside artists and get inspiration from unusual materials.


Last week, Nicole and I tried out a workshop we've been developing that we're dubbing "scratchpaper" for the first time as part of the Scratch conference at MIT. After the conference we were reflecting on the many paths we took to come up with the activity and spent a few minutes brainstorming a partial list of all the past experiments that influenced the development process and contributed to our thinking around the topic.

As an exercise, I took the rough notes that we scribbled on an oversize post-it and tried to sort the ideas into categories related to the areas of exploration that make up the content of the activity. I grouped things related to paper circuits, scratch explorations, seeed studio grove kit, circuit blocks, programmed peepshows and sensor experiments. As well, I added relevant links to blog posts, videos, activity guides and sources for materials to the mindmap. This represents a first attempt to try to capture the messy, non-linear, and collaborative process of activity design for us in the Tinkering Studio.

Click on the image to get to the version with links added. I'd like to try something similar for other activities and it would be interesting to think about different ways to organize the inspirations on a timeline to emphasize how these explorations often take time to develop into fully fledged activities and how ideas complexity and combine with one another. We hope that the process will continue as scratchpaper becomes one more element in our growing ecosystem of playful inventions and delightful ideas.


Creepy Beasties

Last Thursday’s Afterdark followed the theme Hair, Feather, Scale, and Nail. To fit the night’s motif, we facilitated a new activity in the Tinkering Studio called Creepy Beasties.

For quite some time, we’ve been doing Sewn Circuits, where we use conductive thread, batteries, LEDs, and various fabrics to construct wearable circuits or electronic plushes (right). Creepy Beasties was the love child of Sewn Circuits and a box of stuffed animals, or to be precise, stuffed animal skins.

Visitors were encouraged to use the materials on hand to make their own stuffed toys, the creepier the better. One approach to this task was to stitch together multiple skins in odd, often unsettling combinations. We supplied visitors with needles of various sizes, threads of various colors, fabric scraps, and sheets of felt. All of these could be used to perform surgery on your stuffed animal husk. If that wasn’t enough, we also had conductive thread, LEDs of several sizes and colors, and button batteries that could be used for the circuitry. The LEDs can make eerie glowing eyes or noses, or can be used in a variety of other ways to enhance the beasties.

Guests also had the option of stuffing their beasties. Unfortunately, we ran out of stuffing two thirds of the way through the night. Our visitors–resourceful as they are–were able to salvage stuffing that we missed when eviscerating the toys. Some even stuffed their creations with other skins and fabric scraps, to nice effect.

Also on the table was chalk for marking fabric, string for embroidery (which nobody touched), needle threaders because the conductive thread frays like crazy, googly eyes and fabric glue, scissors, seam rippers, pins, sharpies for marking the positive lead of LEDs, round nosed pliers for curling the leads of the LEDs. and a multimeter (for testsing LEDs and the continuity of your circuit). I forgot to put out thimbles, but they didn’t seem to be missed.

In the future, I’ll probably do without the embroidery string and the googly eyes. The fabric adhesive is difficult to use, and splotches of glue are hard to avoid. If googly eyes are a must, I’m inclined to suggest hot glue. I would also consider putting out ribbons and different types of fabric.

To help our builders along, we have examples of sewn circuity that we spread around the table. These examples show how to make parallel circuits, how to construct switches out of snaps or flaps of fabric, and how to attach LEDs. As per usual, we try not to limit the creativity of our guests, so we actually had a few people come and build their own version of the examples instead of creepy beasts.

The activity can be daunting to people who haven’t sewn before. We tried to dispel any fears by pointing out that messy, ugly stitches really enhance the aesthetic we’re aiming for. This was ample encouragement for most people, and the few who didn’t know how to sew coming in picked it up quickly. This left me with more time to focus on the circuitry elements of the activity.

The tricky thing about our LEDs is that they will only operate at specific voltages; this means no series circuits (unless you plan to chain multiple batteries together). Another obstacle is that not all of the LEDs play nicely with each other. If you’re planning on sticking to one color, this doesn’t matter, but if you want to mix and match, the process requires a lot of testing. (An interesting side-note is that like-color LEDs were generally okay when grouped; orange worked with yellow and white, and green could be combined with blue.) To tests whether LEDs work together, we have a couple examples that are just squares of felt with two parallel lines of conductive thread. You attach the battery to one end, and lay all the LED’s across the gap. These little helpers are a must-have, and before we do the activity again I want to make a few more.

As most of you probably know, our workshop seats eight comfortably. Over the three hours we were open, we were full the whole time and probably saw about twenty-five guests. Tending to the 8 guests were myself (an intern), two project explainers, and Mario (a former intern now fully fledged Tinkering team member). Normally we have three people facilitating; the extra manpower was a real advantage.

Outside of the space we had a table with several examples on it. Visitors were encouraged to interact with them - pick them up, turn them on or off, squeeze them. Most of the time, one of us facilitators was stationed with the examples, talking to the guests about the activity and manning the gate.

To help introduce the project to visitors, we also have a vertical monitor that we use to display information about the activity and photos of our guests’ work. Before the night started, we decided that we really wanted to use the monitor to display photos of what was going on. Doing this live is tricky, as to our knowledge, there isn’t really a [free] service built for posting and displaying photos in real time. We tried DropBox (ugly) and Google Drive (uglier), before something clicked in my mind and I remembered my days of tumblr, which can be customized heavily and has a relatively unobtrusive interface. I set up a blog for the activity, and found a free theme that fit our needs really well. I could have also edited the theme’s HTML to make it really perfect, but I was pressed for time and there wasn’t much need. With the help of an app from the Chrome Store, I was able to snap photos from my phone and post them to the periodically refreshing page with ease (below).

All in all, I think the night was a success. The visitors really seemed to enjoy themselves, and it showed in their creations. The staff had a good time too; some of them built their own beasties, but just watching people go through the process was a treat. The fact that the activity fit the After Dark’s theme was the cherry on top. Sadly though, this is a pretty intensive project, both regarding materials used and from the standpoint of facilitation; we probably won’t be doing it again for a while. If you really want to build your own creepy beastie, give it a shot yourself! There’s also a chance we’ll bring back this workshop for Halloween, so stay tuned!